‘I know many ... losing family, lives.’ Drug program hits close to home for students

In the span of just a couple of hours Monday morning, the lives of 12 students at Lucille Whitehead Intermediate School were destroyed.

As their fourth- through sixth-grade classmates watched, the kids stole drugs, were convicted and sentenced in juvenile court, and were put on probation. Lessons not learned, they overdosed on alcohol and drugs at a party, died in an emergency room and heard their parents read their eulogies at their funerals.

None of it was real, except the fears and tears the experiences generated, and the message kids left with: Nothing good comes from alcohol and drug abuse.

The program, by The Drug Store Project, had students move from tent to tent on the school lawn, where they saw the consequences of bad choices. In something that looked right out of the 1978 documentary “Scared Straight,” a man portrayed an inmate who ripped into kids who were smiling or laughing.

“Think this is funny?” he asked menacingly. At one point, he got in the face of a few boys, who shrank into their seats. “You wanna be in there with me?” he said, referring to the cell he’d been standing in.

It was too much for a little girl in the back row, who began to cry and was removed from the tent to be consoled. Principal Lorinda Ferguson said counselors were on hand to talk with children who were adversely affected.

Sitting next to her mother, sixth-grader Lily Watkins broke down in tears during her mock juvenile court hearing at the thought that, had it been real, she wouldn’t be home to watch her little brother grow up.

Later in the morning, she consoled a classmate who was overcome with emotion by seeing Lily “die” in an emergency room. The boy, Braden Tolleson, said watching the scene play out reminded him of when his grandfather nearly was killed by the West Nile virus.

On what he learned from Monday’s program, a still-tearful Braden said, “Just never do drugs, no matter what anybody says.”

Monday’s was a return visit to Whitehead Intermediate by The Drug Store Project. It last was presented a few years ago, but there’s now an entirely new group of fourth- through sixth-graders at the school. Ferguson said she hears from students that they’re very touched and believe such a downward spiral could happen to their friends or loved ones.

Fifth-grader Mia Alva, one of the students selected to play a drug offender, said going through the scenes was “kind of intense, honestly. I mean, because it could happen in real life. It already does — a lot.”

“I’ve seen plenty of kids ... who have made bad decisions in general,” she added. “It’s around you all the time, and nobody helps them realize it is a bad decision.”

Fellow student Elias Rodriguez said much the same. The Drug Store Project is important, he said, because “you get to see, like, real events that actually happen in real life.” Asked if he knows youth whose lives have been impacted by the bad choices he saw portrayed Monday, Elias said, “I know many ... They’re losing family, lives, and just bad things.”

Amber Rorabaugh, Mia’s mother, said The Drug Store Project is especially important for a county like Stanislaus, where so many children’s lives are touched by drug abuse.

“I was actually a kid that was affected by parents that used drugs, which is why it was important for me to involve her in doing this, and myself. To let kids know that they can make better choices than what’s presented to them.”

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.